What nobody tells you about residency

By Kristen Fuller, MD
Published March 17, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Establishing a mentorship during residency can be beneficial in navigating long work hours, burnout, and stress, and can provide guidance for career success.

  • Taking advantage of learning opportunities, conferences, and feedback from others during residency is crucial for personal and professional growth.

  • Practicing self-care, building healthy relationships, admitting when you don't know something, and keeping a positive mindset can help make residency more manageable and lead to future success.

I knew I would work long hours and be exhausted during my residency. Everyone told me, “Get ready to have no life outside of the hospital.”

Although this is partially true, there were many other lessons and advice that nobody told me about residency. Residency is hard, probably one of the most difficult journeys you will ever experience in life. Some days you may even second-guess your decision and want to quit. Yet, on other days, you will be more fulfilled than you ever imagined. 

Establish a mentorship

Working at a teaching hospital during your residency means you are surrounded by brilliant people who want to teach.

Whether it is a senior resident or an attending, a mentor can help you work through the hard stuff, such as long work hours, burnout, exhaustion, and stress. They can also provide vital information about patient care, navigating job opportunities after residency, and how to succeed in your career. 

As you progress through your residency, you may become a mentor yourself to a junior resident or a medical school student, thus completing the full circle. Once you finish residency, it may become more difficult to meet mentors who want to invest in you and your career, so take advantage of these mentorships during your residency. 

Take advantage of all the opportunities

Conferences, Grand Rounds, and structured learning time are just a few of the endless learning opportunities you have during your residency.

Take advantage of the plethora of learning opportunities, teaching points during patient encounters, feedback from others, case studies, and studying for board exams.

Although these learning opportunities are less structured than in medical school, residency is still full of learning opportunities. This is your time to ask questions, learn from your mistakes, and soak up every learning opportunity before you go off on your own. We often get bogged down with long hours, charting, and patient care and need to remember that these few years are for us to learn and take advantage of endless opportunities. 

Establish healthy relationships

There is life outside of residency—you have to build it. 

You may meet some of your best friends during your residency, whether in your residency class or through another residency program.

You may meet your life partner. It is important to have fun, make friends, and establish healthy relationships with like-minded people who can make your work environment that much better and beautify your life outside of residency. 

Practice self-care

Taking time for yourself for your own well-being and also to make yourself a better doctor is important. Whether attending therapy, doing daily exercise or yoga, practicing meditation, or engaging in fun-filled hobbies, these are all ways to take care of yourself emotionally, physically, and mentally.

Practicing self-care is a vital part of residency, and vacations and therapy sessions can be a huge part of this journey. 

Therapy for attendings, residents, and medical students is often stigmatized. Still, therapy, whether it is preventative or for treatment, can be extremely beneficial. It can help prevent burnout, as well as improve your personal and professional life. 

Above all, sleep well, eat well, exercise regularly, drink plenty of water, and avoid alcohol, drugs, and toxic people. 

'I don’t know'

Medical school and residency are the two pivotal times in your medical career when you can say “I don’t know” if you don’t know the answer. But it is also important to ask questions and seek out the answers as part of the learning process.

In residency, you are not supposed to know all the answers, but you are supposed to develop the tools to ask the right questions to the right people to find the answer. 

Saying “I don’t know” as opposed to trying to make up an answer or pretending you know something you do not is a sign of humility and vulnerability. Admitting you don’t know shows that you are putting your ego aside. Overconfidence and dishonesty are two unwanted signs in a resident. 

It gets better

When you first start residency, it is extremely overwhelming. Trying to learn a new EMR, finding your way around the hospital, getting to know your attendings, fellow residents, and nurses, and taking care of your patients is monumental.

Remember that you will get into your own routine with time, and the things that were the most challenging when you first started out will become second nature eventually.

As you progress throughout your residency and become a senior resident, you will become more confident in your patient care and decision-making skills. 

Intern year is always the hardest. So try to maintain a healthy mindset as you navigate through intern year, as everything gets better. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. 

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